College Essentials: 7 Tips For Your First Year

 Starting college is scary. Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed to survive the summer leading up. From searching Amazon obsessively for the perfect closet organizers to making sure my finances were in order; starting college is a tall order for an eighteen-year-old. I moved across the State but some of my friends moved across the entire country.

I finished my first year of college recently and looking back, there are a few things that helped make my first year great. I’ve compiled a list of seven tips to improve your first year of college. Remember, everyone has a different experience, and what worked for me, might not work for you. College is all about learning. Learning more about yourself and the world around you. But if you’re anything like me, you are obsessively reading every article ever to make your first year of college the best it can be. 

Tip #1: Apply for scholarships (and FAFSA) 

I know your school advisors, parents, and teachers have all probably told you to apply for scholarships, but it’s true! I recommend starting with a few basic essays that you can use to apply for a wide range of scholarships. The scholarships with more focused prompts can feature your more creative essays. Apply for scholarships at your school, in your community, at your intended college, and wherever else you find them.

 Don’t stop applying for scholarships after you make it to college either. Universities usually have a set budget they give to students in the form of scholarships and usually, they are looking to give away money each year. Make sure at least some of it goes to you!

Before you apply for scholarships though, FAFSA is a must. Even if you don’t think the federal government will give you money, apply! Oftentimes scholarships ask you to submit a pdf of your FAFSA, so they can see your parent's contribution number or expected contribution from the federal government. It’s important to at least have your FAFSA completed in case a scholarship application asks you to submit it. 

It is possible to pay for a majority of your college expenses through scholarships if you are dedicated to applying. I know your last year of high school is probably crazy right now, but take some time each week (an hour or two) to apply and write essays for scholarships. It will pay off in the long run!

When it comes to writing those scholarship essays, be honest. Donors want to know more about the real you. They are interested in the person they will be giving their money to so tell them exactly what you are about, and the right person will connect with you. Not all scholarships are created equal, some call for a more serious tone, while others may want an essay from someone witty, curious, and funny. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and showcase your personality, donors get sick of reading the same essays. They want to know more about students beyond their accomplishments.

Tip #2: Say yes

I’m an introvert. People aren’t my thing. If I’m being honest, I prefer a night in with my dog than one out. However, when it comes to college, say yes! Say yes to hanging out with new people, say yes to joining a new club! Putting yourself out there will earn you some great friendships and new experiences you will be grateful for in the end. 

Now with great power comes great responsibility. If a situation or person feels off, then don’t agree to it, but don’t stop yourself from getting out there just because it’s what you’ve done in the past. Try new food, go to a ballet, or experience a sporting event. During the first week of college, my anxiety worked overtime, but I forced myself to try new things anyways. I ended up meeting the most amazing people and joining some great clubs. My favorite memories are from that first week, so don’t be afraid of trying something new, it might just surprise you. 

Tip #3: Learn to take great notes 

Note-taking is essential in college courses. During my first semester, I stuck to old reliable- handwritten notes. I quickly realized I needed to write faster and retain more information. Paraphrasing was not going to cut it. A lot of my professors asked some of the most obscure questions on exams. When writing by hand, I didn’t have those obscure notes because I paraphrased ideas. In my second semester, I typed all my notes and found I retained a lot more information. I could watch the screen and type at the same time, plus it was a lot easier to organize my notes after class. 

I’m not saying typing notes will work for everyone. I know some people memorize information better with handwritten notes. I recommend if you’re one of those people who memorize what you write, type your notes first, and then handwrite the most important information before an exam. 

College classes move a lot faster than they did in high school. After all, you have one semester to learn a year’s worth of knowledge. Play around with different note methods and see what works best. 

Along with this point, taking good notes is a skill to be learned. Notes are the only thing keeping your brain tethered to the concepts learned in class. Some professors will have slideshows with notes, others will simply lecture. Get comfortable with both formats. Learn to take notes based just on what someone is saying. Listen to a Ted Talk, and take notes from it. You will do well in college if you can master the art of note-taking or if you have a photographic memory. 

Tip #4: Balance work and play

If you didn’t guess already, I’m an academic. I have always loved school. In high school, I focused a lot on getting good grades and making sure I got into a decent college. College is a bit different though. Grades aren’t quite as important to future employers. College is a time for you to learn about yourself and the diverse world around you. I’m not suggesting you give up on academics completely, just don’t spend every waking minute in your dorm room or the library. Go for a walk around campus, and spend time with people in your residence hall. Make connections while you are at college, most likely they are the people recommending you to future employers. After all, C’s get degrees. 

Tip #5: Sign-up for some fun classes 

If you go to a larger university, they most likely offer some “fun courses” (fencing, yoga, rowing, tap dance, etc.). Smaller universities might not have classes you can take like the ones I listed but you can still take “fun courses”. Fun courses are just classes you take because they sound intriguing to you. If you had an interest in Greek mythology or astronomy as a kid, take a course about that. Most likely, those classes will still check off a required credit, but make sure you check with an advisor first. 

My favorite classes from last year were the ones I took for “fun”. Yes, they are still college courses, but they tailor to interests outside of your major. I ended up adding on a second major because of one of those fun classes because I found it was something that interested me. 

Tip #6: Get involved

As I said before, future employers aren’t super concerned with your grades in college. You should still pass your classes (especially the ones in your major), but realize that getting involved with clubs and extracurriculars around campus is important too. If you are an advertising major, find an ad club to get involved with that builds experience. Political Science majors might want to get involved with student government. These clubs and extracurriculars will help build connections with people in your field. 

If your university doesn’t offer a club you’re interested in, start one! Starting a club looks great on a resume too. Even beyond building a resume, being in a club builds friendships. You get to meet with people who share similar interests every week, you’re sure to make some great lifelong friends. 

Tip #7: Plan ahead 

The final tip is to plan. People aren’t joking when they say college goes by quickly. It’s important to be three steps ahead of yourself. Think about classes you want to take, places you want to travel, and internships you are interested in. Planning for the future never starts too early. Learn from older students and get advice. They have made mistakes and have a wealth of knowledge. I’m sure if you ask, they would be willing to advise you on some great internships or study abroad opportunities. 

Invest in yourself! The best way to make yourself a valuable asset to employers is to know what you want. Be ambitious and aim for the stars. You hurt yourself more by holding yourself back. College is a time to experiment. Enjoy your four years of undergrad, you won’t forget it! 

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